The massive deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum known as Pebble is trapped in low-grade ore, which contains large amounts of toxic sulfur. Pebble straddles the headwaters of the two largest rivers feeding Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home of the world’s richest salmon fishery. These fish have fed the Alaska natives and other residents of the region for generations. They are the foundation of a culture that is thousands of years old. They are also the economic engine of the region.
As you read this, thousands of commercial fishermen and other workers are congregating to harvest and process those fish. Meanwhile, sport fishermen from around the world arrive to pursue trophy trout, salmon and other game fish, providing jobs for guides, outfitters and pilots. Hunting and wildlife viewing provide more jobs. Unlike fisheries elsewhere in the world wiped out by mining, dam-building and other development, the Bristol Bay salmon runs - and the jobs that rely on them - will last forever if properly protected.
Exploiting Pebble would create billions of tons of powdered sulfur-rich mine waste held behind some of the biggest dams in the world. A major flood, earthquake or short-sighted design in the construction of the dam would send fish-killing waste into the rivers. If the climate shifts, a drought could result in powdered waste blowing away on the wind. The sad history of this type of mining around the world tells us that such a disaster is by no means unlikely. More than 10 jobs would be endangered for every two the mine creates. That’s just bad business.
This isn’t a case of the Environmental Protection Agency getting in the way of job-creating private industry. The EPA has been asked to help by tribes, corporations and businesses representing an overwhelming majority of the people of Bristol Bay. No mine lasts forever. After a few decades, the mining jobs will dry up and the companies will take their money elsewhere, leaving billions of tons of potentially acid-generating material that would require perpetual remediation forever.
Bristol Bay is one of the richest areas on earth in biomass, culture and opportunity. Just because the mine advocates have been successful in addicting a few to easy money doesn’t mean that the area is poor. In any scale of dollars per capita generated, Bristol Bay is rich. We should not destroy a renewable resource base for a fleeting moment of non-renewable resource development.
The foreign companies behind Pebble would have us believe that the mine and Bristol Bay’s fish could coexist. Where on earth has a similar ore body of similar size been developed in a wet climate without substantial watershed destruction? Even Bingham Canyon in Utah, a richer deposit close to infrastructure in a desert, has polluted more than 70 square miles of surrounding aquifers.
The millions of salmon that will swim into our bays and rivers in the coming weeks are the real gold of Bristol Bay. They have sustained the Alaska Native people, body and soul, for millennia; they create jobs and money for fisherman; they provide thrills of a lifetime for anglers. They cannot be lost to the nation.
Rick Halford, who works as a paid consultant for Trout Unlimited on its Save Bristol Bay Campaign, retired from the Alaska Senate in 2003. During that time, he served as an RNC committeeman for Alaska and earned a Defender of Freedom award from the NRA. The Alaska Miners Association was among his most consistent supporters.